Monday, January 07, 2013

How Long Is a Cubit?

The cubit is one of the earliest known standards of length, used in ancient Israel and throughout the Near East. It was originally the length of one’s forearm between the tip of the middle finger and the elbow. The word cubit comes from the Latin word for elbow and the Hebrew term refers to the forearm. The term occurs more than one hundred times in the Old and New Testaments to describe structures and distances.

Nations varied somewhat in defining the cubit's exact length, and both short cubits and long or royal cubits were common. Dual cubit values in Egypt were 17.72 and 20.67 inches, as determined from measuring sticks found in tombs. In Babylon, 20.806 inches was a common cubit length (Achtemeier, 1985).

Cubit measuring rods such as these from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Aperia would have been common tools in the quarries and at the pyramid construction site (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

There is a fascinating clue to the length of the cubit from the Old Testament and archaeology. Hezekiah’s famous Siloam water tunnel is referenced in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:3–4. It was built around 700 B.C. to provide water for Jerusalem during a siege by the Assyrians under Sennacherib. This tunnel is hewn from solid rock and is a memorable hike for visitors to the old city of Jerusalem. When I walked the tunnel in 1995 by flashlight, there was a foot depth of moving water along the entire length of one-third mile, or 1,749 feet.

Originally there was a carved inscription near the tunnel outlet into the Pool of Siloam within the city wall. This Siloam Inscription, now in the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul, Turkey, records the tunnel length as 1,200 cubits. Comparison with the actual length yields a cubit measure of about 17.5 inches.

With a 17.5-inch value for the cubit, Noah’s Ark measures an impressive 437.5 feet long, 72.92 feet wide, and 43.75 feet high (300x50x30 cubits; Genesis 6:15). The Ark may well have been the largest building project in history up to that time. Also, the biblical giant Goliath was over six cubits tall (l Samuel 17:4), or nine feet.

(re-posted from Don DeYoung, How Long Is a Cubit?, published in Creation Matters, a publication of Creation Research Society, Volume 17, Number 5, September/October 2012, to appear at

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Achtemeier, P.J. (ed.) 1985. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. Harper & Row, San Francisco.